We Get Closer To Home in Our Interview With Oakes and Smith

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With harmonies that come together in an ethereal match made in heaven, Robert and Katherine Oakes sing beautiful songs that they call “lyrical and inspirational meditations”. We reviewed their EP, ‘Evergreen’, in February, and found it to be both beautiful and enchanting. Having read their back story, we felt that they would be an intriguing couple to interview, with a lot of interesting stories to tell. We weren’t wrong.

EP: How did you two meet? What was your impression of each other on that first meeting?

Katherine: We met through a mutual friend when I was looking to network with people in the Berkshires back in 2007. We connected and wrote to each other online for two months, then met in person for the first time that May. The instant I met Robert I felt like I could trust him and was very comfortable around him. Our first conversations together made me feel as though I had known him all my life. That first summer we connected often and had long talks about life, music and art. Not long after that, I started adding artwork and backing vocals to Robert’s solo album Heart Broken Open. In 2010, we began officially as Oakes and Smith.

Robert: I remember most how easy it was to talk with Kate; our first conversation flowed effortlessly, as we connected over so many things. We talked a lot about art and music and books and ideas, and it was clear we shared a passion to create. Kate seemed bold, courageous, ready to leap and explore. She also seemed very compassionate and caring. I remember she sang a song for me that night, and I was bowled over by her beautiful voice. I also remember she produced an old journal she’d found in an antiques shop filled with the daily reflections of a stranger who lived 200 years ago. I loved how moved she was by these echoes of the past. I could feel she had the soul of a poet.

EP: Would you say music is in your blood, and if so, why? Conversely, if not, why not?

Katherine: I grew up with music in the house. My parents and other family members were part of a regional choral group called Mass Production. I can remember attending rehearsals with them as a kid and listening to them practice multiple-part harmonies with the band. I was also very fortunate to be involved in a wonderful choral program in my high school, as well as a strong musical theater program in both my school and local community. We were a very tight-knit group of kids who were motivated to put on great performances. This group enthusiasm helped me challenge myself and learn a great deal about my voice and stage performance.

Robert: Yes, music is in my blood. I often say that the music in my family is mysterious, in that neither I, nor my brother, nor my father, nor my grandmother had much formal training. Yet, we have all been intuitive and impromptu music makers. Singing and playing was a part of most of our family gatherings. I have vivid memories of my grandmother sitting at the piano in our living room banging away in her very unique way (mainly on the black keys) and belting out old tunes like “Lucky Day” at the top of her raspy voice. My great uncle—family legend has it—was a Vaudeville performer and traveling salesman. My dad, who had been a rock ‘n roll and blues singer in his young days, and later, more of a jazz crooner, remained a gigging musician after he married my mom, even while holding down a day job and raising a family. Growing up, my brother and I both played in his band, and later, we formed our own bands and began writing and recording songs. Simply put, I can’t remember a time when music wasn’t an important part of my life.

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EP: You describe your music as “Art Folk,” and you are responsible for the singles/album artwork, Katherine. Where does art end and music begin, or vice versa? Can music and art ever be separated?

Katherine: I feel like the boundaries between visual art and music are always moving for me. Sometimes there really is no distinction; a song that we are writing can conjure up a visual piece, and other times I will be thinking of music while I am painting or drawing. There are definitely visual projects that I work on that are separate from what we do as Oakes and Smith but could be integrated into a song or an album in the future if those images should fit with what we are writing. Robert and I are very interested in intentionally integrating visual art more and more into our live performances. For example, we will be using projections of artwork during our next concert.

EP: How much do your surroundings influence your songwriting? For example, you live in The Berkshires, a very rural region. Do you feel this influences your writing?

Katherine: I feel like we receive direct influence from the natural beauty here in the Berkshires. You can hear it in our lyrical reflections on nature and spirit.

Robert: I grew up in suburban New Jersey, a place crowded with cars and people, highways, strip malls, and row houses, where there is never a time when you can look out your window at night and see no glow of electric lights, and you can always hear street sounds or voices or airplanes overhead. I live now in a town of 300 people and thousands of trees. At night, the darkness is complete, unless the moon is bright. It’s quiet enough to hear cows lowing on the other side of the valley or the wind coming up and rustling the leaves. When I lived in New Jersey, I wanted to feel closer to nature and to live in this kind of solitude, and I feel my writing then mostly expressed a longing to get away. Since coming here to the Berkshires, I feel my writing has begun to express a greater sense of ease with my surroundings, less of a longing to leave.  Maybe this has to do with a feeling that, here, I am freer to live in greater harmony with my own internal rhythm and the rhythm of nature.

EP: What’s next on the horizon for you? In the next year? 5 years? 10?

Oakes and Smith: Next up for us are some live shows followed by the beginnings of a new recording project. In the next 5-10 years, we hope to continue to build and grow our music, our connection to fans, and our catalogue of recordings. We also hope to travel more.

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EP: What’s your take on the current state of the music industry?

Robert: These days, because of things like affordable home recording, online networking and digital distribution, independent musicians have a greater ability than ever before to make music and connect directly with fans. This greater capacity for direct artist-to-audience contact is wonderful, but it has a downside. Free file sharing and music streaming may have made it more difficult for the average musician to make a living practicing the craft, and the culture of online sharing may be making people less inclined to go out and listen to live music. I hope that, while we do continue to use the Internet as a great way to share and make contact, we will not forget the joy of gathering together to experience the magic of a live performance.

EP: Who are your main influences musically? How about in life?

Katherine: When I was younger, I listened to cast recordings of Broadway shows, so I was influenced a lot by the voices I heard on those CDs, but I also listened to a lot of popular rock bands from the 70s like Queen and Led Zeppelin.  In my later teenage years and throughout my 20s, I have been influenced most by female performers like Loreena McKennitt, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Sinead O’Connor. An artist whose work I have been spending a lot more time with recently is Kate Bush. I feel drawn to her performance style and ability to tell stories through music, visuals and dance. I would love to integrate more of her style into what Oakes and Smith does next.

Robert: I have listened to a lot of different kinds of music over the years, and I do love to draw from all sorts of things. But if I had to name the biggest influences on my music, I would say artists and groups like Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Jon Anderson, Yes, The Moody Blues, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, David Bowie, Kate Bush, and The Sundays. Some of my favorite writers are J.R.R. Tolkien, Herman Hesse, Walt Whitman, Joseph Campbell, Ranier Maria Rilke, Rumi, and Hafiz. Of course, my father was a big influence, as well as several school, music and spiritual teachers.

EP: If you could do it all over again, what, if anything, would you do differently, and why? And what advice would you give yourself, just starting out, knowing what you now know?

Katherine: If I could speak to my younger pre-teen self, I would say: practice often, start learning an instrument and do not take criticism or pitfalls too harshly; experiences, good and bad, are all part of the process of growing a richer artistic life.

Robert: I would encourage myself to listen to my intuition more often, to let go and follow the flow. Ease up on the self-criticism and enjoy all the little victories. I would remind myself that art-making is really all about the process and the life you live while you do the work. I would say, get out and live, feel, soak in, then set it down and move on to the next moment. Oh, and I would say, have more fun.

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EP: Who are your top three artists you think we should look out for, and why?

Oakes and Smith: We have been fortunate to meet and work with some amazing musicians in the past few years, who have not only contributed their talent to our music but are formidable musical forces on their own. Jemal Wade Hines and Moksha Sommer front the Sufi/world folk ensemble HuDost. They have an incredibly unique sound, fusing world music with original songwriting and amazing soundscapes. Another band we would highly recommend is the indie/fusion band Mammal Dap, which includes our friend and frequent collaborator Zack Cross on keyboards. They are fun to dance to and amazing on their instruments. Finally, we encourage people to check out singer/songwriter Justin Hillman, who writes beautifully lyrical folk songs and is a masterful acoustic guitarist.

EP: What question do you wish someone would ask you in an interview, but nobody ever does?

Oakes and Smith: What is the connection between your spirituality and your artistic work?

Katherine: I believe they are one and the same. Very much like my artistic life, my spiritual life and my connection to it ebb and flow. Some days, I feel completely inspired and awake to my heart and the greater creative force that flows through me, and some days it is more difficult for me to plug in to that source. I feel that the condition of my spirit and connection to a higher power directly influence my writing, singing and painting.

Robert: I believe that creativity offers us an opportunity to connect with the Soul and with God, however it is that we experience these things or whatever words we feel comfortable using to name them. I also believe that the creative work we do in this life has some connection to whatever comes next, though exactly what that means is a mystery to me.  It’s hard to talk about, but I often feel that by writing and singing, we send messages to something beyond this life, and sometimes, we receive a reply.

You can find Oakes and Smith online on Twitter, Facebook, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and their website. Their most recent EP, ‘Between The Earth And The Sky’, as well as all their previous releases, is available on Bandcamp.

About the author

Lisa has been writing for over 20 years, starting as the entertainment editor on her university newspaper. Since then she's written for Popwrapped, Maximum Pop, Celebmix, and ListenOnRepeat.

Lisa loves all good music, with particular fondness for Jedward and David Bowie. She's interviewed Edward Grimes (Jedward), Kevin Godley, Trevor Horn, Paul Young, Peter Cox (Go West), Brendan B Brown (Wheatus), Bruce Foxton (The Jam), among many many more. Lisa is also available for freelance writing - please email lisa@essentiallypop.com

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